So I sorta fell silent and haven’t been posting much lately. This is due, in large part, to having accumulated a huge pile of music that is entirely new to me. It doesn’t help that it would be difficult for me to write about much of this music even given the advantage of intimate familiarity; most of it was obscure to begin with, and is abstract verging on the obtuse. Jazzy krautrock improv from Scandinavia, broad-spectrum wiggly noise bursts, ramshackle protean compositions that were coming unraveled even as they were recorded: these are highly individual outbursts of noise and creativity, and even when they’re affiliated with a time and a place or from a reasonably well-known artist (depending on how well-known you think Nurse With Wound is), they’re difficult to describe.
But that’s not really an excuse or a complete explanation. The simple truth is that spending sustained periods of time listening to music I’ve never heard before erases my ability to talk about music at all. There are albums where I can confidently say, after a single listen, “I like this,” or “this doesn’t interest me,” but for the most part the stuff I’ve been listening to lately resists that kind of immediate judgment. I can tell after hearing Mnemonists’ Horde or Rota-Limbs for the first time that they’re both interesting and exciting, but I lack the words for putting that fascination into concrete terms, and given the tiny audience for this kind of music, just saying “this rox u shud listn 2 it” isn’t going to do much for anyone. Especially when I don’t really know how I feel about it myself.
I think that explains why I’ve fallen off the soundwagon a little in the last few weeks and have spent some time listening to stuff that’s a little less demanding. There have been a number of great new records put out over the last month, too: the Breeders erase time with a miraculously good / unpretentious / direct set of songs on Mountain Battles, as accomplished as anything they’ve done since Safari; Torche’s new record, Meanderthal, is almost as good as their monstrous debut, putting the “thunder” in “thunder pop”; M83 have returned from the wilds of Elektronikaslavia with a newer, sleeker sound and a new album, the aptly named Saturdays = Youth; and a Dutch label has released a remastered version of OMD’s brilliant Dazzle Ships, with its incredibly infectious New Wave hit single that never was, “Genetic Engineering”. These are the things I find myself returning to when the stress of moving (oh yeah – I’m preparing to move me and my enormous pile of media across town) overwhelms my ability to deal with hours on end of square waves and rambling percussive scree.
But I’m going to try to suck it up and deal, both by documenting the enormous piles of stuff I’ve continued to add to my collection, as well as trying to come up with some kind of game plan for talking about it. It’ll probably be fragmentary and incomplete, but that’s what blogs are, aren’t they?
I want to say something about the music Autechre’s been making for the last five years, but it’s hard to find the words. Autechre defined, more or less by themselves, a pure, electronic sound that, after their first three or four records, was indebted only theoretically to the electro and hip-hop that originally inspired them. It is now something entirely other, although they have a legion of followers who together constitute a dotted line connecting Autechre back to the techno continuum. Their music is rooted at least as much in the process and tools used to make it as any residual notions of traditional songcraft, and this can give their music, even at its most turgid, a glossy, intellectual sheen. It can also make it feel fathomlessly recursive and inhuman.
I sometimes end up feeling about Autechre the same way I do about the more abstruse electronic works of Iannis Xenakis (RIP) and Karlheinz Stockhausen (RIP). A piece of music (or, really, sound art) can be an aesthetically unimpeachable artifact of an intellectual process, and it can intimidate you with its recondite structure and alien sounds, but sometimes that’s insufficient if the work doesn’t lend itself to interpretation. I believe that Autechre spend a long time working out the structures they use, and are conscientious about shaping their aggressively experimental music into songs, but sometimes I feel like I have to take that too much on faith.
I will say that I feel that they’ve pulled themselves out of the creative dead end they were in when they made Confield; that album is one of the most frustrating CDs I own. Excerpted, it sounds brilliant, but despite concerted, repeated efforts to wrap my head around it, I’ve never been able to get it to stick. 30 seconds after hearing it, I’ve completely forgotten what it sounds like. It contains an hour of sound that mimics music without ever coalescing into songs – with the exception of the obsessive quasi-Japanese melodic figuration and monotone rhythm of “Eidetic Casein”, which is the one part of the album I love without reservation.
Each album since then is another step back from the inaccessibility of Confield, but their last 4 albums are all easy to admire and hard to love. Draft 7.30 returns to the ghostly melodies of Garbage while keeping Confield’s arrhythmia. Untilted brings back some much-needed low-end heft and some discernible attempts to engage with Autechre’s electro legacy. And finally, their newest album, Quaristice, sees the return of the diversity and ambition of tri repetae (as well as its length).
But I miss the promise of Autechre’s middle period, when they were probably my favorite electronic musicians of all time, and when they knew a secret: they had figured out how to invert the figure and ground of music, and use their keen ear for ruthlessly pared-down melodies to create melodic lines that were sturdy enough to act as the backbone for their wandering, erratic rhythms. Just listen to “Laughing Quarter” from Envane, “Tewe” from Chiastic Slide, or “Under BOAC” from LP5 to hear songs that balance spastic rhythms with simple 4-bar melodies that somehow never get old. Sometimes, as in my favorite song by Autechre, “Arch Carrier” (also from LP5, what I consider their last fully successful album), both the beats and the melodies are kept on a tight rein, and they produce songs that are both rigorously constrained and classically beautiful.
I have to be careful when I talk about Autechre, though. I was completely disgusted with Envane and Chiastic Slide when they were released, taking them as yet more evidence that the whole IDM community had finally and irredeemably disappeared up their own asses. In fact, I was mostly reacting to the fact that tri repetae++ consisted of two brilliant EPs shackled to a wildly uneven album. Perhaps in reaction to the eventual near-total reversal of that opinion (at least when it came to Envane, Chiastic Slide and Cichlisuite), I tried to convince myself (and a few other people) that Confield was a difficult but ultimately brilliant record that would release its secrets in time. This lasted a few short weeks until I went to see them play in Oakland. Practically everyone in the Bay Area’s electronic music scene was at that show and were in the mood for something weird, challenging and transcendental; I can’t speak for anyone else, but I got the distinct impression that I was far from the only one who was severely disappointed. It was amelodic, rhythmically flat, and while technically live (and perhaps even improvised or generatively produced) sounded completely lifeless.
It’s possible that someday a key will turn in my head, and suddenly the most recent third of Autechre’s output will suddenly open up to me. I want to like it: I love difficult, esoteric sounds (see: rest of this blog), and it feels like a confession of failure when I ultimately just can’t get into work as clearly uncompromising and innovative as Confield and their subsequent albums. It’s never fun to see my limitations so clearly laid out. But I also have to be honest, with myself if nobody else: I don’t think my feelings are going to change. Somewhere along the way, Autechre lost me, and while I’ll keep my ears open, I don’t think they’re going to find me again.
This year is shaping up to be a major trip, music-wise. Either it’s been a great year for new music, or writing this blog has made me hyperaware of what’s being released, but whichever it is, a bunch of my favorite bands either have new things out, or are about to:
- Season of Mist just released Anaal Nathrakh’s brutal, unrelenting and majestic latest, Hell is Empty, and All the Devils are Here in America, finally. The UK’s had it for four whole months already!
- The unpredictably brilliant grindcore / IDM hipster assault unit Genghis Tron have a new album out next month. Their first full-length was one of my favorite records of whatever year in which it originally was released. (H/T to Tomas.)
- Autechre have emerged from their laser cocoons, sound swords smoking, to unleash Quaristice, their latest bit of tortured Max/MSP mangling. Maybe it’ll be better than Confield and Untilted. Maybe. I think I’m gonna get that one on digital (which is available now – the physical edition’s out in a
weekmonth or so, although if you wanted the laser-etched steel cased limited edition, too bad! You snoozed! You lost!).
- I was able to download my copy of Clark’s newest, Turning Dragon, finally. One of Bleep’s servers slipped a disk. I am very excited to finally have it. I was so excited about “Volcan Veins”, I bought it off iTunes to tide me over until I was able to get the album. It has not gotten old yet.
You know what would be awesome? If Autechre and Radiohead co-headlined a tour, with Dan Deacon opening. Dan could get the party started, and then Autechre and Radiohead could take turns confusing the shit out of everyone. I think that would be a lot of fun.
So one of the areas where my preferences intersect with Planet Pitchfork is that I have a serious weakness for the whole freak-folk scene (which is only intensified by my recent discovery of the world of Joe Boyd-produced folk/rock). While I liked Joanna Newsom live back 2004 (when I saw her opening for other freak-folk heavyweights Devendra Banhart, Vetiver and Brightblack Morning Light), I resisted picking up Ys because the reviews made it sound like overindulgent prog wankery (as a side note, I have no idea why I decided that was a bad thing, as I have acres and acres of overindulgent prog wankery in my collection – maybe it was that it was popular, much-hyped prog wankery).
As it turns out, Ys is a meticulously crafted work of genius, and is only overindulgent if you are a frowny-faced fun hater. Its five tracks are overflowing with song, and are almost embarrassingly rich in beautiful melodies and flawless couplets. I’ve listened to it countless times and “Emily” and “Sawdust & Diamonds” still – still – make me tear up every time I hear them. This is not an easy thing to do, people. I was genuinely delighted it when Ys came up on my iPod just now.
Newsom’s masterful poetry (seriously, I think I know good poetry, and for all of Newsom’s four-dollar words, this is as elegant and concrete as poetry gets in 21st century English), distinctively girlish voice (WARNING: her breathy, raw delivery is a deal-breaker for some) and harp playing combines with Van Dyke Parks’ ornate, varied orchestration to create something that has all the subtlety and restraint of a sledgehammer to the forehead. In a good way. Next to this, Joni Mitchell’s experiment in orchestrated folk-pop, Travelogue, is a miserable failure, and the songs on Travelogue are some of the best songs chosen from a 40-plus year career of one of America’s greatest songwriters. I cannot praise this record highly enough.
Swervedriver were a terrific band. They released four albums that managed to mine just about every great rock and roll tradition of the preceding 30 years without ever sounding like anything other than Swervedriver. They were better on stage than on record, even though classic songs like “Last Train to Satansville” were minor masterpieces of invisible soundtrack work and they were clearly consummate craftsmen. Their songs have a transparent clarity that glows brighter the more attention you give them. They were, in short, a great British rock band, and these days almost entirely unknown.
The biggest reason for their relative obscurity is due to factors beyond their control; their first records were released by Creation at the height of shoegazermania, and while they had some brilliant dreampop moments (“Sunset” off their debut is my favorite along those lines), they were both more muscular and more traditional than most of their peers. I saw them open for Soundgarden in the spring of 1992, and I went from thinking they were also-rans to being a fan in about 10 minutes. They rocked hard, and played far more confidently than you’d expect from an opening act who were almost completely unknown in the US at the time. My favorite album by them, Mezcal Head, is a straight up rock and roll masterpiece – nothing “alternative” about it – and owes much to the Rolling Stones, Lee Hazelwood and The Byrds.
I picked up their third album, Ejector Seat Reservation, shortly after it came out in 1996. It was hard to find (it didn’t get released outside the UK until 2003) and so I was a little disappointed that it seemed so featureless and dry next to the effortless pyrotechnics of Mezcal Head. That feeling persisted until just a couple months ago, when I ripped all my Swervedriver and put it on my iPod. Having the opportunity to hear Ejector Seat Reservation while I was out and about allowed me to get to know it at a more leisurely pace, and I slowly realized that it is at least as classic a set of songs as anything else Swervedriver ever released. I use the word “classic” consciously; Swervedriver’s debts are more obvious than ever, but so is the care and conscientiousness of their songcraft.
This album really deserves to be in the same category as the best records by Blur, Ride or Pulp, and easily outclasses anything made by the odious Oasis (the Gallagher brothers are jerks, their records sound like overcompressed crap, and they had one great song they kept permuting over and over). It’s hard to say what Swervedriver could have done to get more noticed, but it’s a shame they weren’t.
Stuck in my head this morning: a medley! Of All Natural Lemon & Lime Flavors songs. Mostly it’s just “I Am Where You Were” (one of the band’s most full-throated, krautrockinest (and derivative) shoegazer epics), but in my dreams it turned into half a dozen other songs from ANLLF’s self-titled debut and Flat Blue Line.
I just noticed that the xylophone part in “I Am Where You Were” is highly reminiscent of the intro to Yes’s “Changes” (from 90125), a comparison I highly doubt ever occurred to anyone in All Natural Lemon & Lime Flavors, or indeed anyone else. Great. Now I have that stuck in my head instead.
I always knew on some vague level that I “should” like Gram Parsons; he’s one of those names you can’t escape if you grow up with your nose buried in old Rolling Stone books, and The Flying Burrito Brothers were one of those California bands, like Little Feat or Quicksilver Messenger Service, that get namechecked frequently by Deadheads. I probably avoided them for exactly those reasons – they were eminently worthy, I was surrounded by Deadheads and I really, really hated the Grateful Dead with a passion. While I’ve since decided that’s pointless, because (among other things) the Dead wrote “Ripple” and a handful of other gorgeous songs, I don’t apologize for my former disdain; Deadheads did (and still do) drive me crazy with their blinkered way of assuming that a band didn’t exist if it didn’t share a stage with Jerry Garcia at some point.
And what do you know, Gram Parsons & The Flying Burrito Bros’ Live at the Avalon Ballroom 1969 was recorded at a couple of live dates with the Dead in 1969 and I love, love, love it. Apparently these recordings had to be carefully pried from the suspicious hands of Bear, the Grateful Dead’s most dedicated recordist and custodian of the closest thing that exists to a comprehensive Grateful Dead archive (somebody should write a good, non-Deadhead biography of Owsley Stanley, because the dude has lived like three lives, all of them fascinating). I can only imagine why he took so much persuasion to allow Amoeba Records to turn these recordings into a widely-released double CD, but the quality of the recordings is amazing. It sounds like it could have been recorded last week.
Getting wanky about tape quality is one of the things I detest about Deadheads, so I’ll just move along and say the sound quality would be irrelevant if it weren’t for the fact that the band play astonishingly well. They make what they’re doing sound so easy, which is remarkable given that Parsons & Co more or less invented the style of country-fried psychedelia and R&B they were playing. Parsons famously coined the term “cosmic American music” to describe his sound, and it fits like a glove. It’s not a million miles from the Dead in sound, but it’s on a completely different spiritual plane. The fluid, confident guitar playing meshes perfectly with a set of classic high & lonesome country standards and is a bizarre and completely apt merging of Californian and Texan sensibilities. This sounds more graceful and assured than most studio recordings (of anybody) from the period, and I could listen to it all day.
When I heard Thom Yorke's solo work back to back with Radiohead's Hail to the Thief just now (thanks, iPod!), it really struck me how underrated Hail to the Thief is. Thom's voice is the main constant between the two ventures, and his singing has always been the most distinctive part of Radiohead's sound, but when I hear the full band come in behind him in "2 + 2 = 5 (The Lukewarm)", it becomes self-evident how integral everyone is. There is very little about this album that is anything less than deft and assured. Its problem, as far as I can tell, is that it's too self-effacing and seamless, and given the explicit political context in which it was released, people (including me) were expecting something more balls-out (or political – for all the posturing, this is as inward-looking an album as Radiohead's ever made). Or maybe we were just expecting more of a decisive break after the diptych Kid A and Amnesiac. Either way, there's a lot going on here, most of it interesting.
On a tangent: it always seems to take me a couple years to get into each Radiohead record. First I think it's massively overrated, then I get sort of annoyed with how many avant garde moves Radiohead are stealing from lesser-known, more experimental bands, then I notice all the little details tucked into the corners, then I start waking up with bits of songs stuck in my head, then I find myself just flat-out enjoying the album from start to finish. I have no idea why they're so popular. They're one of the least user-friendly popular bands I've ever heard.